I’m going to approach this week’s edition of The Reading Life a bit differently than in weeks past. Instead of a theme for reading, I’m going to focus on what we might perhaps call a theme for buying books.
Let’s say that you have a limited book budget, but still want to buy well-made books. You want to buy some classics, but also some newer things — as well as translations of foreign literature into English. You also want to buy books that are going to last, whether they are hardcover or softcover. This is when you want to head toward the publishers or imprints that focus on publishing a series of books given over to one or another — or several — of these aspects.
The Library of America is a non-profit foundation that publishes “America’s best and most significant writing” in beautiful, hardcover, octavo-sized editions printed on excellent paper and bound in a tough, subtly colored cloth. Their catalog now includes several hundred volumes, ranging from the Revolutionary period to the present (though they only rarely publish a living author). One can subscribe and receive books in slipcases, or buy them individually in black dust covers.
There are so many great authors included in the Library of America, it’s hard to know where to start. In the recent publications, they’ve put out two volumes each of Raymond Carver and John Cheever, as well as several volumes of Philip K. Dick, and a single volume of Shirley Jackson’s novels and stories. This, in addition to all of the American classics like Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, William and Henry James, and a host of others.
Everyman’s Library, now owned by Random House, has been publishing the classics of world literature for something like 100 years, first in a series of inexpensive pocket-sized hardcovers, and now in a series of attractive, clothbound octavos. They’re still inexpensive and their catalog continues to grow every month or two. If you have a favorite classic, contemporary or otherwise, and you want to own a copy that you can read and re-read, then buy an Everyman’s edition. They’re basic, solid, comfortable to read, look good on the shelf, and last forever.
Among other things, the Everyman’s Library is a great way to own all of Dickens — or Austen, or the Brontes, or Dostoyevsky — in affordable, well-bound editions. There are also several sub-series published in a smaller format: poets, themed anthologies of short stories, and children’s classics.
Several years ago, Penguin started publishing the Great Ideas series: small-format paperbacks with short works or excerpts from the world’s great thinkers, with redesigned covers. There are now four color-coded (red, blue, green, and purple) series of twenty volumes each. Besides being compact (I often keep one in my bag as a backup book) and full of fascinating writing, they are worth owning for the covers alone. Each cover is unique, highly designed, and printed to mimic the three-dimensional imprint of letterpress.
Start with Montaigne (On Friendship) or Seneca (On the Shortness of Life) — both from series 1 — and go from there.
The Dalkey Archive Press is a publisher of 20th century literary fiction, essays, and translations based at the University of Illinois-Champaign and the proud owner of the worse homepage in the publishing industry. But once you get past the eye-twitch-inducing homepage, you find a catalog stocked with some of the truly great books of the last century, all published in well-built and nicely designed trade paperbacks.
For some reason, I seem to have a lot of Irish books from Dalkey Archive Press: all of their editions of Flann O’Brien including At Swim-Two-Birds and The Dalkey Archive (after which the press was named), the hilarious Killoyle by Roger Boylan, and the bizarre Transit by Bernard Share. They also have published several collections of essays by William Gass, one of the great literary essayists now writing (and the owner of one whoppingly impressive library).
Open Letter is a relatively new publisher of literary translations, based at the University of Rochester. They publish twelve books a year and generally stick with novels, collections of short stories, and literary essays. They also have a unique subscription program, in which one pays for the next five or the next ten books that they publish, and they just show up at regularly monthly intervals. I’ve been a subscriber for 5-6 months now, and have yet to be disappointed. And, the books themselves are all very well-made trade paperbacks (and the occasional hardcover) with great cover designs.
I can particularly recommend The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov and Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis.
Verso is a British publisher that specializes in translations of European literature, philosophy, and politics — especially those works on the radical, left-leaning side of things — as well as British and American authors of the same ilk. Verso also publishes several special series: Revolutions publishes classic texts by key figures of the world’s many revolutions; Radical Thinkers publishes key texts by European critical theorists and thinkers, and includes some of the foundational works of 20th century critical theory; Real Utopias publishes the results of workshops and conferences from the Real Utopias project, an effort to propose new designs for existing cultural and political institutions.
And lest that all sounds a bit heavy and too much like certain flavors of grad school, they also publish some really fine novels. I suggest any of the novels in Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet, which I am about to start re-reading.
Is there a series or a publisher that you particularly like? Leave us a comment and tell us about it.